Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist at UC San Francisco, spends long hours at the hospital treating patients. But between shifts, he takes calls with health-technology entrepreneurs to offer them advice and feedback.
As Weiss explains, it's not about the money. He does the majority of this advisory work for free or in exchange for a tiny chunk of equity. It's also not about prestige: He doesn't speak publicly about the startups he's consulting with. So why does he bother?
For one thing, it makes for a stimulating break in the day. "I have an intense curiosity and I like novel things," says Weiss.
It's a challenge to quantify the exact number of doctors moving into health tech; even if a large physicians' group like the American Medical Association (AMA) tried to keep track, it would need to determine whether to include doctors that advise startups but still practice one or two days a week, or just those who have left medicine altogether. I suspect that the former category is much larger. Suffice it to say, though, that Weiss is far from alone—the migration of doctors into the health tech space is noticeable.
It is now fairly common for well-funded health-tech startups to have medical directors, physician founders, or chief medical/health officers on their team. Some high-profile examples include Collective Health, Sherpaa, Startup Health, Doximity, Aledade, and AthenaHealth. And the AMA tells me it is proactively forging partnerships in Silicon Valley and beyond to help doctors "work in tandem on the innovative tech solutions that promise to change health care."
To understand why doctors are dabbling in startups or even changing careers, I recently polled MDs involved with startups (very informally) on Twitter to gauge whether they were motivated by money, prestige, fun, or altruism. Of 45 respondents, 44% were motivated by "fun." But it runs deeper than that. Weiss, for instance, has other motivations. He is concerned that much of the $4.5 billion in venture capital raised by digital health companies in 2015 will be spent on the next "Uber for health care," or the 10th next-generation stethoscope, rather than on solving patients' most pressing needs. "A lot of startups are peddling really cool technology in search of a problem," he told Fast Company.